Wrestling failure – slowly coming to understand its treasures

May 16, 2010

‘Suffering makes us deeply aware of our own inability. It takes away our power; we lose control. The light of our eyes can see nothing. Now it is only the inner light in the eye of the soul that can help you to travel this sudden, foreign landscape. Here we slowly come to a new understanding of failure. We do not like to fail. We are uncomfortable in looking back on our old failures. Yet failure is often the place where suffering has left the most precious gifts.’

Eternal Echoes, John O’Donohue

Having dusted off, John O’Donohue’s book Eternal Echoes and written some about it a couple of days ago, I was leafing through it again today. There is such a wealth of wisdom in this book some thoughts are sad, others joyful, most are a result of deep reflection and compassionate, sensitive articulation. The above quotation caught my eye, among others, and I thought I’d cite it for little more reason than I think it’s beautiful and maybe someone who is questioning the value of their life will read it and feel encouraged. A kind of internet message in a bottle.

I like the first words of the citation especially:

‘Suffering makes us deeply aware of our own inability.’

This is such a hard lesson to come to terms with never mind embrace, but it is an absolutely necessary one and precious gift if we can accept it and receive it in the spirit it has been offered to us by ultimate reality. Suffering is that valuable reminder that we are not eternal, at least not in the sense that the Divine is. God may have ‘placed eternity in our hearts’ and there may be an eternal element of our souls, even our redeemed and future resurrected bodies…but, unlike God eternity is not for us the natural state of our existence.

Rather, we are finite.

We are mortal.

We will come to an end.

Grappling with this element of our vocation, an aspect that is common to all human life, indeed all physical life, has been one of the great battles of human history, of political, artistic and religious life. Yet, if we can not just grapple with this spiritual messenger, like Jacob and the angel at Peniel, in the book of Genesis in the Bible (Genesis 32: 22-32), but actually receive it into our lives, then its painful lesson can sweeten our existence.  The wounding, yet paradoxically healing message the struggle brings will help our lives to be transformed. We will receive a new start, a new identity. In the terminology of ancient cultures we will be given a new name. Not merely any name, but rather a better name – a name that reflects and sparkles with our true nature and inspires our highest achievement.



The ancient texts of the Bible discuss this paradoxical relationship with suffering in many places and yet, perhaps non is so vivid in its physical and poetic imagery than the story of Jacob. In the Biblical story, Jacob whose name means ‘deceiver’ (literally ‘he who grasps the heal’) had earlier in his youth stolen his brother’s birthright, when he tricked his father into blessing him (Jacob) rather than the rightful heir in tribal law the eldest son, Esau. Later in the narrative, Jacob is an older, more mature man, one who has personally experienced suffering, deceit and trickery himself at the hands of others, mostly in the employment of his cunning uncle Laban. In chapter 32 of the story, Jacob is now wealthy with two wives children, servants and cattle. It is at this point that he has to come terms with the real consequences of his youthful betrayal of his brother, as Esau and his band of warriors ride towards Jacob and his family’s caravan.

Aware of the wrong he committed as a young man, Jacob internally faces death as he contemplates what will happen when he meets his long-lost brother. It is in these circumstances: of contemplating his guilt and shameful failure of character with the prospect of ultimate punishment looming ever closer, as well as considering the harm that might be done to his family too, the innocent ones whom he loves, that Jacob comes face to face with God in a most intimate encounter. They literally wrestle each other.

The Bible tells the story this way:

Genesis 32:22-32 (NIV): Jacob Wrestles With God

 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” 
 But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

 The man asked him, “What is your name?”
      “Jacob,” he answered.

 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”

  Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” 
 But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.

 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.

Jacob – the deceiver – like many of us fights God’s presence in his life, difficult, uncomfortable and afflicting, like physical combat with a wrestler, until he is wounded at the hip and faces his ultimate inability to overcome God. He has been, however, tenacious and utterly determined to win, to literally earn a blessing this time from the Divine messanger…and he does. He becomes Israel, ‘He who wrestles with God’. The stigmatizing label of deceiver(Jacob) is removed and a brand new, sparkling identity of a God Wrestler is stamped into his spirit and soul.

Yet, lest Israel forget the difficult process that led to this new name and new level of vocation, he is physically wounded. His hip is dislocated. From now on, he, Jacob, Israel will walk with a limp. It is this limp, I believe, this reminder of  hard-won successes and their intertwining with personal failures that characterise the mature disciple of Christ. It is also the sign of the weathered, seasoned, spiritual pilgrim of whatever tradition she or he may be a part of. The great  nineteenth century theologian and scholar of religion, Frederich Schleiermacher, (sometimes frowned upon in Evangelical circles), described religion as a sense of ultimate dependency on the Infinite. Perhaps, it is only through suffering and the persistent physical putting into practice of the desire to seek the Divine face and blessing, that we can truly become aware of our own ultimate inability…and thus… our need for… and dependency on God.



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